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Tablet – a Scottish recipe

  • Butter (slightly salted) – 100gms
  • Milk – 250ml
  • Condensed milk (sweetened) – 1 tin (397gms)
  • Golden syrup – 20gms
  • White granulated sugar – 1 kg (cane sugar rather than beet though both make excellent tablet)
  • Vanilla extract or essence – 5-10ml (1-2 teaspoons)

I have made tablet all my life, although I have to concede that my mother (I should say ‘our’; there were a lot of us!) helped me at least until I started school.

Some tablet recipes are ultra-simple. Something like this: Combine the ingredients and bring to the boil. Continue boiling till the mixture looks medium brown. Remove from the heat, beat for a few minutes, and pour into a greased tray. And, in a sense, that’s all there is to it. But if you look at some of the comments on YouTube or cookery websites, brief instructions like that sometimes produce inedible results. But so do longer, more detailed instructions!

All of us who make tablet have disasters from time to time. And after nearly six decades, it still happened to me, not so long ago. It would be the occasion when my grown-up daughter came to the house to get a tablet-making demo, after things had gone wrong for her. She soon discovered that it could get much worse!

All these years and yet I never felt fully in control of the process. Like my photos, I was always on tenterhooks to see how things would turn out. Would the tablet be gritty and unpleasant in the mouth? Would it be more like hard or soft toffee? Would it stick to the bottom of the pot? Would it be rock hard and difficult to break – or bendy, like fudge? In fact, tablet is really quite like fudge – or more so than Scots are usually prepared to admit. But, as the name implies (and unlike fudge), it should break – not bend – like the tablets of stone that Moses cast on the ground.

A few months ago, my tablet making experience changed radically. That was when I first started using a sugar thermometer. I paid a fiver one day and it arrived in the post the next. Now, doubt and fear of failure are a thing of the past.

Every tablet-maker knows the phrase ‘soft ball’. Except that I’m sure I wasn’t alone in not being entirely sure what it meant. Now, I can tell you. It means 116 degrees centigrade. That’s the magic figure and it is on the thermometer. It’s even marked ‘Soft Ball’!

Right, let’s get cooking. Chose a heavy, fairly large pot, perhaps a pressure cooker (without the lid), and place it on a low flame. Not the lowest, but just a smidgen above that. I tend to keep the heat at this setting throughout the whole process. Others manage a much shorter cooking time, so I presume they are using a higher heat for at least some of the time.

Place all the ingredients in the pot. If you have one, place the pot on a digital scale and weigh the ingredients as you add them. Stir to wet the sugar. Then continue stirring from time to time. You want the heat to spread evenly through the sugar while it melts/dissolves. Rightly or wrongly, I imagine that stirring helps the process, like stirring sugar in tea.

The sugar must not boil before it is fully melted. If it does, your tablet will be gritty and deemed a failure by all who taste it. I’m making tablet as I type this and right now am about 35 minutes into the process. The mix is smooth and liquidy, and only just beginning to come to the boil. The temperature has reached 100 degrees C. I keep stirring from time to time (after every few lines of writing) and the mixture is now boiling, rising to double its height. At 60 minutes, it is a deep tan colour, no longer rises in the pot, and the temperature is nearly 116 degrees C. Soft ball temperature! I’m going to stir continuously now as I don’t want it to get much hotter, or it will make the tablet a bit too hard for my liking. Hotter sugar means harder tablet. (Also, I don’t want it to stick to the bottom of the pot! If it does, I’ll have to pour the mixture straight into another pot.)

Job done. At 75 minutes, when the mixture was a rich brown colour and much reduced in volume, I took the pot off the heat and added a 2 teaspoons (10ml) of vanilla extract. Having separated our electric mixer from its bowl/stand and numerous packets of biscuits, I inserted the standard whisks and beat the tablet mix for a few minutes till it started to thicken slightly and make a thin skin on the surface during a pause in beating. (You can do this by hand with a wooden spoon if you don’t have an electric mixer, or if you want an upper body workout.) Beating is complete when the tablet has cooled enough to set quickly. I poured most of the mix into a greased tray and used a spatula to scrape the residue onto a side plate. (These crumbs are for instant gratification and I believe they don’t have any calories!) About 10 minutes later, I lightly scored the surface of the golden expanse with a sharp blade.

You could let the mix become a little browner. You could add a little more vanilla. Experience will guide your personal choices. But you’ll definitely be in more control with a thermometer to tell you what’s going on inside your mix.

Hope you have success and that everyone enjoys your tablet. They’re sure to feel free to comment – either way!

UPDATE: I have just moved house and, for the first time ever, am cooking on a hob which is not gas. It’s an induction hob which means that all your cherished pots and pans, some of which you’ve had for decades, will no longer work for you and have to be given away. Then you have to choose, buy, and get to know a whole new squad. Referring to the tablet recipe, it means that you don’t say things like ‘place it on a low flame. Not the lowest, but just a smidgen above that’. Our hob can be set from 0–9 in half steps; that’s 18 temperature settings! And I was more than a little surprised to find that the appropriate setting for tablet is 4. (ie 4.5). So far I’ve made tablet just once on my new hob and it was perfect. Certainly it brings a degree of precision to temperature setting, once you’ve discovered – with the help of your thermometer! – what works for you.

Archie McLellan